The shock that travelled up his arm was deeply satisfying, as was watching the ball shoot past the net while Emily ran across the court to reach the corner, ponytail streaming behind her. She got there just in time and swung her racket in a perfect arc, smacking the ball back at him.
Johnny was moving immediately, eyes on the ball. His arms and legs ached, the sun stung his face and sweat had soaked through his t-shirt, but it was fucking worth it because they were neck and neck, and Emily was clearly frustrated that she couldn’t pull ahead of him. He'd bet she was regretting it now; the arched eyebrow she had given him when he challenged her to a game.
When he beat her, it would make it as if his Beyblade match against Takao yesterday hadn't even happened. He'd had a bad day, that was all, but he would win next time, and he'd win this.
“Go, Emily! You can do it!”
Mao was cheering Emily on from the sidelines. Ever since the PPB and the Byakko clan had become "friendship teams" and begun visiting each other yearly, the girls had become inseparable, not to mention insufferable.
Ha. Maybe Emily needed the support.
Johnny threw himself after the ball.
He hit the ground hard, but was immediately back on his feet and moving to intercept the next one. He didn’t need anyone to cheer for him.
“Kick his ass!”
He didn’t want anyone to cheer for him. He could win all on his own.
A group of three was coming towards them across the lawn.
“Rei-nii! Guys! Are you going down to the beach?”
“Yeah, we just had to wait for Takao to wake up. How long have those two been at it?” Kyouju.
“How are they still standing? It's too hot for tennis.” That was Takao.
Emily smiled in grim acknowledgement. She definitely looked like she was slowing down.
But her swing was as powerful as ever.
Johnny refused to be distracted. He was going to win.
Emily backed up to the line, let the ball bounce once, put both hands on the racket, angled herself.
This one would hurt, but he could take it.
“Everyone else is down there. Even Ralf.”
Johnny’s head turned automatically.
The ball flew past him, bounced on the rubber mats and hit the boundary net before rolling to a standstill.
Johnny met the BBAs surprised eyes and felt loss settle deep and familiar in his gut. Drew breath again and felt how heavy it was in his chest, before clenching his teeth against a wave of rage.
Not even Mao cheered.
Emily waited for him at the net post where they had put their stuff, wiping her face with her towel and taking a long drink. She was breathing hard.
He walked over with fury simmering in his stomach, bent down and snatched up his own towel.
"I almost had you," he muttered.
"YOU ALMOST HAD SQUAT!"
He startled back at her shout.
She was glaring at him. “What even happened?”
"What are you complaining about? You won!"
She practically threw her bottle into her bag. “You were doing well! I was enjoying myself; it was good exercise! And then suddenly you just gave up!”
“I DIDN'T GIVE UP!”
She raised the eyebrow again, her eyes sharp like Trygator’s teeth behind her large, thin glasses. “Then what distracted you?”
The sun stung his eyes.
“Congratulations on your victory,” he said stiffly, and turned his back on her.
Takao and Kyouju were already running down towards the beach, but Rei had stayed with Mao. Johnny meant to simply go past them, but Rei hailed him.
“Are you coming down to the beach, Johnny? I think Olivier is planning to serve lunch there.”
Johnny thought of the sand and the water. Knew that Ralf’s swimming trunks went all the way down to his knees, and that he preferred to bring something to work on and sit in the shade, but that when he went swimming, his long lean body cut the waves easily, because he was much stronger than he looked.
“I’m not hungry.” He kept walking.
The Boulanger family’s summer home was even larger than their house in Paris. It sprawled on a clifftop overlooking the sea, and the grounds stretched so far in all other directions you couldn’t see the nearest neighbour. Johnny ignored the gravel path towards the front door, choosing instead to swing around the house to enter through the balcony doors, which were wide open, the white curtains waving in the sea breeze.
“Hey! Hey, Johnny!”
Johnny turned on the steps. Giancarlo was on the gravel path with Michael, Steve and Eddie of the PPB. Bouncing around their legs was Olivier’s Rough Collie, Camille. The boys were in swimwear and carried towels and other beach necessities.
Giancarlo waved. “Can you take Camille inside with you? It’s too hot for her at the beach.”
Johnny sighed, put two fingers in his mouth and whistled long and high. It worked on his own dogs, but it required some extra urging from Giancarlo before Camille came sprinting across the grass. She wagged her tail and danced in place, panting like a steam train.
“Just go inside.” Johnny shooed her in front of him.
“Johnny?” Giancarlo shouted.
“What?” he shouted back, irritated.
“You’re coming down, right? We’ll see you there?”
Johnny went inside without answering.
Camille ran ahead of him through the bright, spacious rooms and up the elegant staircase to the upper floor. He got to his own door, and as soon as he opened it, she had slipped through and was padding over to his bed to make herself comfortable. With the windows open and the wind coming in from the sea, it was cool here, which she had to appreciate with all that fur. Which was now going to get all over his bed.
“Just stay away from my pillows,” he warned her, putting his racket aside and dragging his sticky polo shirt over his head. His arms ached from the workout.
Camille panted happily at him before laying her head down on her paws to watch him as he undressed. He pulled his bathrobe out of a closet and hung it on a chair before heading to the bathroom.
“Since you were dumb enough to follow me in here, you’ll have to wait for me.” He looked back at the dog, but she seemed perfectly content to wait. He shrugged "Suit yourself."
Olivier had two little sisters, twins Maelle and Aurelie, and their two rooms were linked by a bathroom. Johnny was staying in Aurelie's room, Ralf in Maelle's, but since Ralf was at the beach, Johnny didn't need to be careful.
The bathroom was disgustingly girly, all white and flowery, but at least the bathtub and the shower were large and luxurious. Johnny put himself right under the showerhead and let the hot water pound down on his head and shoulders. He closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift.
So he had lost again. He could still make up for it. This was day three, and they would stay for two more; there would be more beybattles for sure, and his recent streak of losses couldn't last. He just needed to get a hold of himself, stop being so fucking distracted.
Had Camille not been right outside the door, and had her hearing not been quite so keen, Johnny might have done more than just rinse off the sweat there in the shower. He was half-hard already, blood pounding dully in his chest and cock, pleasure zinging in his nipples when he ran soapy hands over them. It was the heat, the luxurious sheets at night, the wine and laughter. Old memories of Ralf with his hair slicked back and saltwater running down his long torso. The new memory of his eyes gleaming in the candlelight last night. The unexpected sound of his laughter when Yuriy told a joke.
Even a mansion of this size felt full with seventeen teenagers in it, and it was impossible to do anything in his own bed when the walls were so thin-
Johnny sighed in renewed irritation. There in the shower, his body aching for other reasons than exercise, Johnny finally admitted to himself that he was holding back to punish himself. For over two years he had tried to stomp out his feelings. For over two years they had been growing worse. Now the mere sound of Ralf's name could cost him his concentration. It was humiliating. It was infuriating.
It was painful.
He turned the dial until the spray was icy cold.
A few minutes later he was back in his room and drying his hair, when there came a knock. Camille barked excitedly and ran up to paw at the door.
Johnny rolled his eyes and went to open. “I said I’m not going to the stupid-Ralf.”
Ralf’s shoulders and the bridge of his nose were sunburned. He wore flip flops and his long shorts and had his towel in hand. “What did you call me?”
Camille ran back and forth across the threshold, wagging her butt.
“Your room is one over,” Johnny said dumbly, pulling the bathrobe closer around his naked body.
“I am aware." He managed to look very imperious despite the shorts. "I'm here to get you. Leaving behind my book, which is no doubt covered in sand by now, and my seat, which has probably been taken.”
The cold shower had not helped at all. The sea breeze slipped through the open window, past the two boys and into the house, dragging its fingers past Johnny’s cheek and over Ralf’s chest and leaving goose bumps in its wake. Johnny had to turn away as Ralf’s flat, light-pink nipples pebbled under the caress.
Ralf cleared his throat impatiently. “Get your trunks. I want to get back to my book.”
"Maybe I don't want to go to the beach. We've been there every day."
"Or maybe you're sore because Emily beat you at tennis." Ralf took a step backwards to escape from Camille's exuberance. He wasn't good with dogs, but they tended to adore him. He frowned down at her before returning his attention to Johnny. "She's a professional, Jonathan, you were hardly going to win."
Johnny pressed his lips together as the hurt and anger reared up again. "Wow. Thanks."
Ralf looked away. "She was impressed with you, though. I told her you could have gone pro if you hadn't chosen blading. She said you could have done both if you weren't so easily distracted, which I'm not sure what she meant by, but it was a compliment, I think."
He wasn't sure what flattered him most; that Emily had said those things or that Ralf wanted to repeat them to him.
"I'll get my trunks."
Camille barked happily, thinking the praise was for her.
The beach was a white crescent, cradled between a strip of black volcanic rock and the glittering, blue sea. A cluster of yellow parasols had been set up to provide shelter from the beating July sun, and on the North end of the beach, the Boulangers had had a bungalow built in the shade of some large pines.
As Ralf and Johnny descended the path down to the beach together, the peace of the scene below was being thoroughly broken by fifteen boisterous beybladers. Takao, Max, Giancarlo and Olivier were taking turns jumping from the floating dock, Eddie, Steve, Mao, Emily and Sergei were playing ball in the sand, two dots in the distance suggested that Kai and Yuriy had gone for a longer swim, and Rai and Rei were sprawled on their towels in the sun, soaking up the warmth, with Michael sitting beside them and looking out to sea. Ralf's lounge chair was still very much available, along with three more; only Kyouju had occupied another chair under the parasols, with his precious laptop open and booted up.
He looked up when they arrived. "Oh good, Ralf, you found him. Now you can concentrate on your book again." He reached down into his bag and pulled out a slim, blue book, handing it up to Ralf. "I kept it out of the sand."
"Such joy," Ralf said, sounding a lot less enthusiastic about the book now that he was here. He sat down with a sigh and found his place in the text using the ribbon bookmark.
Johnny tipped his face back to catch the sun and thought to himself that the shower had been pretty pointless, but at least it had given him a moment to himself.
Then the volleyball landed at his feet with a thump. He picked it up.
"THERE IT IS!"
Before he knew, Johnny was running for his life with Eddie, Steve, Mao, Emily and Sergei on his heels.
The beach turned out to be a good idea after all. Johnny soon forgot his anger as he played ball, swam, and explored the surrounding area. It was easier to pretend he was just eighteen and horny for anything and everyone when he was wrestling with Steve in the sand or seated on Sergei's massive shoulders trying to shove Mao into the water. There was something to all of them, a glimmer of heat in their eyes, an excitement to their smiles, a languid energy in their bodies that told him he wasn't the only one feeling the hormones.
They weren't children anymore.
But Ralf remained under his parasol, endlessly reading his little blue book, only looking up to tell them off when Steve and Johnny kicked up too much sand.
After a bout of running around, it was nice to just float in the waves for a while. Michael joined him, having twisted his ankle a week back and so not being up for any of the rough-housing. Max and Takao splashed around them, as childishly excited by the sun, surf and sand as they would have been when Johnny first met them. Johnny tracked the passage of a few woolly clouds sailing across the wide, blue sky, let his mind go empty and just floated.
"What are they doing over there?"
"Is Rai hurt?"
Johnny and Michael both righted themselves in the water to see what it was Max and Takao were reacting to, and Michael was swimming for shore immediately. The other boys followed.
Everybody else had congregated by the parasols and were bent over Rai on his towel. The only ones missing were Mao, Rei and Emily, who must have swum off for some girly time or something.
"Hey, is Rai alright?" Takao shouted as they dragged their legs through the shallows.
Yuriy and Steve both shushed him.
As they neared, they realised no one seemed to be very alarmed.
"What are we doing?" Takao whispered.
Rai was breathing heavily in sleep, unaware that he had become the centre of attention. He had gotten darker, broader and more muscular since last Johnny had seen him, which was a while ago now, and his black hair was slowly getting longer, though for the moment it couldn't compare to Rei's long braided tail.
"We think he's purring," Eddie explained.
Even Kai was in the circle watching Rai, though he had his arms crossed over his chest and hadn't deigned to bend over to hear better.
"He's not purring. That's not possible," Kyouju said mercilessly. He hadn't even looked up from his laptop.
"Absurd notion," Ralf echoed.
Olivier was lying on his stomach on the chair next to Ralf's and idly kicking his legs. "I don't know. They're a mysterious bunch, that Byakko clan."
"I think it sounds like purring," Yuriy said.
Johnny listened, and there was a kind of rumbling sound somewhere in that chest, but purring? “He’s probably just snoring.”
Michael dragged wet hair out of his face and cocked his head to the side. "He ... purrs?" He sounded more dreamy than questioning.
Steve and Eddie shared a grin.
"I've heard the sound of a cat's purr can actually help your body heal," said Steve.
"Michael's ankle could use some of that," Eddie agreed.
They pounced on Michael suddenly, scattering everybody else, and wrestled him down on his knees, bending him forward over Rai's chest.
With his hands held behind his back, Michael could only wiggle uselessly and hiss at his teammates. "Guys, guys, what-stop it-fuck-guys!"
And then Eddie's grip slipped and Michael flopped down on Rai in all his cold, wet, dripping glory.
Rai woke with a scream. "Aaaargh!"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"
Rai shoved Michael off, shot up from the towel and sent most of the other teenagers scrambling away with a growl.
Michael laughed nervously. "Hey ... Rai ... We were just playing."
Rai gave him an unimpressed look with a hint of teeth, yanked his towel from underneath Michael and stalked off towards the bungalow.
Michael sat up, leaned his chin on his hand dejectedly and watched Rai walk away. "He was purring," he said to no one in particular.
"No," Kyouju maintained. "No, he wasn't."
Johnny rolled his eyes and went to the ice box to get a soda.
Eddie and Steve slunk back and sat down on either side of their captain.
"Sorry, man. Didn't meant to harm your chances."
Michael sighed. “It’s okay. I don’t think I have any chances. He’s mature, stoic, wise. I’m just a doofus in a baseball cap.”
“You’re not a doofus.”
“You’re the coolest dude we know. Rai’s gotta see that.”
“I don’t know. He’s so mysterious, always looks like he has something really important on his mind. He’s like … he’s like …” Michael grasped for the right words. “He’s like a lion.”
Johnny choked on his soda. He had to sit down in the sand, he couldn’t stop laughing.
“Hey, what’s your deal?” Michael had turned around and was frowning at him.
Johnny managed to compose himself at last, flopped down on his back and waved his soda dismissively at the three Americans. “You're a genius, baseball-boy. Like a lion. Oh god.” He wiped tears from the corner of his eye with the heel of his hand. "Next you'll tell me Rei is sort of like a tiger."
“If Rai is like a lion,” Kyouju observed dispassionately, “then he definitely wasn’t purring, because lions can’t purr. They roar.”
“You two are dumb,” Michael said petulantly, turning his back on them. “He was so purring.” He might have sat there until lunch contemplating his crush if Eddie and Steve hadn't dragged him off to watch them play more ball.
Rei, Emily and Mao returned. The ladies occupied the last two chairs, while Rei spread his towel out and lay down in the sand and sunlight in front of them.
Max and Takao came running to the cold box for drinks about a minute later. Johnny deposited his empty can in the trash bag and went down to the water to wash sand from his hair. When he returned, Max and Takao were talking excitedly amongst themselves.
"Hey, Johnny,” Takao called as he approached them. “Wanna swim around the cliff with us? Kai said there's a cave there."
Johnny glanced over at Ralf, and was surprised to catch his eyes; he had looked up from his book at last.
"Wanna go?" Johnny asked. "You're not gonna sit there like a nerd all day, are you?"
Ralf looked away. "I'll just end up with a headache. You go. I'll sit here like a nerd."
"That book had better be amazing," Johnny said, resenting how petulant his own voice sounded. "If you prefer that to hanging out with-everyone." The catch was barely noticeable.
“I am here, everyone else is here. I am hanging out with everyone.”
“Come on, Johnny,” Max put a hand on his shoulder. “Leave him to it.” He and Takao headed down the beach.
"Fine. Screw you." Johnny followed them, but had barely gotten five steps in before turning around with a frustrated grumble. "Or screw me. Hey, tall, pale and boring! At least put on some sunscreen."
"I'm sitting in the shade, Mother," Ralf replied.
Johnny stalked back. "It hasn't helped; you're already burned." He grabbed the nearest bag and began rifling through it for sunscreen.
"Try the big tote," Olivier said helpfully from his chair.
Johnny found a number of different bottles in that bag, and grabbed the one with the highest protection.
"Garlic in the dinner yesterday, feet in the sun today," Michael said as he came limping after the ball. "You're really coming out of your shell, Ralf." He grabbed the ball and turned to limp back to the other players. "Proud of you, buddy."
"First I blend in, then I eat you all," Ralf said.
Johnny grinned despite himself. "I'd almost forgotten," he said as he sat down on the side of Ralf's chair. "You used to be allergic to humour."
"Only bad humour."
Johnny rolled his eyes. "Come on: sunscreen time."
Ralf sighed like he was greatly put upon, but closed his book and accepted the bottle. Their hands brushed, and Johnny suppressed a shiver; they touched so rarely.
"Johnny, come on!"
Takao was yelling at him from down by the water, jogging impatiently in place. Max was already swimming.
Johnny stood up. "Yeah, yeah, stop nagging."
"Takao likes you," Ralf said quietly, rubbing the white cream into his right shoulder. "You have a similar adventurous spirit."
"Oh," Johnny said stupidly. "Okay." The sun blazed a lot hotter all of a sudden. "Uh, just remember to get that stuff on your back too. Olivier, help him out."
Olivier had been watching them all this time, but there was something less than sweet in his smile as he rolled over on his back and said, "I do so like how you two take care of each other. Not everyone would be willing to put up with you, Ralf, being as stubborn as you are. It requires a special someone."
Ralf gave Olivier what Johnny could only describe as a warning glance. It was strange.
"Keep your shirt on!" Johnny rose from the chair. "Guess I'm going then."
Kai caught them on the way out, found out where they were going and ended up conscripting half the beach to go with them, touting their inability to take care of themselves, but clearly just being a worried captain. Johnny remembered being surprised at the start of their second tournament season, when the BBA had announced that Kai would be the team’s captain from then on. It had seemed like a ridiculous idea, to put the most antisocial member in charge of everyone else, but as it turned out, now that Kai was free of his past and able to be his best self, he made a surprisingly conscientious and effective captain. He seemed to know when to step in and when to let his charges make their own mistakes, taught and protected them, and still somehow managed to be a grumpy, monosyllabic loner most of the time.
Then again, all the captains had grown into their tasks over these past few years. Yuriy had somehow managed to keep team Borg, now calling themselves the Blitzkrieg Boys, from falling apart even as therapy, foster homes, reintegration into society and the new geographical distance between them threatened to pull them apart. The Byakko clan seemed to become stronger every time Johnny met them, Rai lifting them up and forward, though he was currently struggling with Mao, who was looking for her own road to walk and furiously rebelling against every authority standing in her way. Michael had learned to look more to his team and less at himself, and was growing into a responsible leader. Johnny suspected Michael's time with Rai had taught him a thing or two. Of course, the American team still relied heavily on Judy Mizuhara and the rest of the PPB to support them.
Once Johnny, Giancarlo, Olivier and Ralf had decided that they were going to try being an actual team, Ralf had set out to read every book on team leadership ever written. It had been an … interesting start. Ralf had gone through periods of being overly controlling, uncharacteristically and incompetently caring, and full of weird ideas for team-building activities. Johnny had put his foot down at trust-exercises and hair-braiding. In the end, Olivier had invited Ralf to Paris for a weekend, and between them they had hashed out some guidelines for their newly minted captain. These days, Ralf led them with natural authority. He didn’t often tell them what to do (god help him if he tried), but he was their chief, their spearhead, and they deferred to him with pride and respect. They were perhaps a little more … into the whole hierarchy-thing than the other teams, but they were also more independent as bladers.
The cave was a cave. Johnny sat at the mouth of it with Sergei, kicking his feet in the water and waiting for the intrepid explorers to be ready to go back.
“This is riveting,” Johnny commented, as Max and Takao, Eddie and Steve exclaimed their excitement in the darkness behind him.
“It’s actually a pretty fascinating natural cave,” Emily said importantly. She was over by the cave wall with Mao, running her hands over the rocks like some sort of rock-whisperer. “Imagine the way this place has formed, from the first little dip in the rock, to a slowly widening maw in the cliffside, the water grinding away at the rock bit by bit.”
“Someone’s still sore about this morning,” Mao sing-sung. Johnny stuck his tongue out at her. She stuck hers right back.
It was cold in here, and wet, and boring. Johnny wanted to get back to the beach, play more ball, have an ice cream, jump from the floating dock, and pester Ralf some more.
“Come on.” Sergei lifted himself back into the water. “We can swim back.”
“Yes! Thank you.” Johnny followed.
The hour before lunch passed quickly. They held a cannonball contest from the floating dock (Steve won), and then Johnny lounged in the sun with Rai for a while, ruining his appetite with ice cream.
Ralf read his book. The thing didn't even have a title on the cover, obviously missing its dust jacket. It was probably old. And boring.
Mao had coaxed Rei away from his towel again to go look for shells and sea-creatures in the rocky shallows on the north end of the beach. When Rei returned, invigorated, it was his turn to try to make Kyouju put his computer away.
"Are you really going to spend this amazing vacation doing the same thing you do every other day of the year? Come look at the ... the ... Emily, what did you call them again?"
"Asteroidea!" she shouted back. The PPB kids were busy burying Steve in the sand.
"Right, asteroidea. You should check out the asteroidea. There's two of them, and they're really cool."
"Thank you for the offer, but I'm very busy with work," Kyouju said.
Rei cocked his head to the side and frowned at him. "What are you even working on?”
Kyouju ducked his head a little, at once annoyed and embarrassed. “I'm writing a paper for the PPB Junior Journal.”
"Didn't you finish that weeks ago?"
"...This is a different one."
“Kyouju.” Rei sighed in exasperation. “The application deadline was ages ago; I don't think you can influence their decision anymore.”
“I should get the answer in a couple of weeks,” Kyouju said, stress creeping into his voice, the typing getting faster and a little more frantic. "There's still time."
“Have you applied to their internship program?” Ralf wondered.
Kyouju shook his head. “I spent a month as an intern there last year. I’m applying to Douglas College.”
"That's impressive! I've heard it's difficult to get in."
"Kyouju even took extra classes to finish school early." Takao appeared, hands cupped around a small crab. "Look what I found!"
Kyouju peered at it through his glasses. "That looks like a Mediterranean shore crab. They probably gathered in the seaweed beneath the cliffs to-Hey, don't distract me from my work!"
"But Kyouju," Takao said. "You've already sent in your application. They've probably already decided."
"That's what I told him," Rei said, once again spreading his towel out in the sand, next to Johnny. Rai had turned over on his stomach to watch the proceedings, but Johnny remained on his back, one hand behind his head, sucking on his ice cream and looking at everyone upside down.
"Besides, you'll get accepted no problem!"
"You don't know that, Takao."
Takao frowned, put the crab down (it scuttled off behind the cooler), and waved at the PPB. "Hey, Emily!" he shouted, ignoring how Kyouju frantically tried to shush him. "Isn't it true that Kyouju's totally gonna be accepted into the PPB school!"
Emily looked up from where she had been heaping sand over Steve's feet, stood, brushed herself off and came jogging over to them.
"Kyouju, you've applied to the college? You didn't tell me!"
Kyouju turned beat red. "I-I-I ..." Then he deflated. "I have, but Takao is being overly optimistic on my behalf."
Emily adjusted her glasses and pressed her lips together in displeasure. "It's time you accepted just how smart you are, Saien Manabu, and how hard-working."
"See?" Rei said. "We keep trying to tell him."
"When's the answer due?" Emily wondered.
"In a couple of weeks," Rei continued before Kyouju could get a word in. "But he's still writing essays for the PPB Junior Journal."
Emily raised an eyebrow.
"I want to show them that I'm not gonna slack off," Kyouju explained.
Emily tutted. "First of all, you are too good for that journal, and secondly, they already know your merits. How many people do you think get personally invited to the intern program? Kyouju, they want you. I have no doubts you'll get in. So take a day off. Have some fun." She turned to go back to her team. "Cause once you're in, they'll work you to the bone." She winked at him over her shoulder before she returned to help the boys bury Steve's massive chest.
Rei shielded his eyes with his hand. “Why are they packing his chest so high-oooh.” He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Hey, Steve! I like your breasts!”
“Thank you!” came the reply.
"See, Kyouju?" Takao said, smiling, but Johnny thought there was something sad in it.
Kyouju stared at his laptop for a long moment. Then he shut it, and smiled. "Alright. I'll go look at the asteroidea."
"There are asteroids here?" Takao asked in confusion.
"No, asteroidea. Starfish. Come, I'll show you. Rei, did you wanna go?"
Rei waved them lazily away. "Already seen them. You two go. I'll nap for a bit." He stretched, yawned like a big cat, and leaned his head on his hands. Then he glanced up mischievously. "You're the only one left not having fun, Ralf. What are you reading that’s so fascinating?”
Ralf’s smile had a bitter edge. “A treatise on man’s folly.”
“Sounds … interesting?”
“I can’t put it down.”
“Maybe a break would do you good,” Rai suggested. “You haven’t turned the page in the last ten minutes.”
Ralf's eyes widened. Then he exhaled cautiously. "Hmph. You're right." He put the ribbon bookmark between the pages before shutting the book and rising. “A swim, was it, Johnny?”
Johnny grinned. “Finally! Now we’re talking.” He got up from the towel and chowed down the rest of his third ice cream.
Rai rose too, rolling his shoulders. "I'll join you, if you don't mind."
They swam out to the floating dock, where they interrupted Yuriy and Sergei's combat training. Ralf and Rai taught the three others how to dive, and then Yuriy introduced Johnny to some new boxing moves.
"Do you fight regularly?" Johnny wondered as they repeated the same move-set side by side.
"Not anymore," Yuriy replied, and there was a wealth of information in that. "But I train at a gym. Forging the past into something useful, that sort of stuff." It sounded like a motto from therapy. "What about you?"
"Not so much. My university is strict on that kind of thing. Not that I care, but it's such a pain to sit through the parent-teacher meetings. I used to brawl with rivals from other schools all the time, but ..."
"You grew up," Ralf said from below them, heaving himself back onto the dock in a cascade of water. "There's no shame in that." He dragged his hair back and squeezed water from the ends. It was dark purple now.
"Pah." Johnny brushed him off. "Ralf is all about the old-timey fighting. Swords, Beyblades. No fisticuffs unless someone's honour demands it. I say there's honour in fighting for your reputation and your pride, and I'll happily bonk you on your big nose to prove it."
"There is honour in combat," Rai agreed. "But not fighting for fighting's sake."
"See, there's a voice of reason," Ralf said, crossing his arms over his chest to keep from self-consciously covering his nose.
"I don't know," Yuriy said, finishing with a series of swift jabs before taking a step back and shaking himself loose. "There's something about the throbbing of a split lip that reminds you you're alive. Don't you think, Sergei?"
Sergei had launched his beyblade on the opposite end of the platform, and was watching Wolborg diving in the waves. The massive beast didn't create so much as a ripple in the water. "Hmm? Yes, yes, fighting. Go, Yuriy."
Yuriy snorted. "Sergei's a lover, not a fighter. Of course, if he did fight, he'd crush anyone."
Not long after, Olivier began hollering and waving at them from shore, which had to mean lunch. They swam back. Olivier and Giancarlo were busy gathering up stray sandals and sunhats, bottles of sunscreen and empty soda cans, giving them back to their owners or putting them away in the tote bags, depending.
Those who were wet dried themselves off, those who were eating ice cream hurried to finish before Olivier caught them, and there was general congregating as they got ready to go wherever lunch would happen.
"Sergei, Sergei, have you seen the asteroidea?"
"You mean starfish?"
Johnny dried his hair vigorously; he didn't feel like dripping through lunch.
Olivier picked up Ralf's book from his chair. He opened it briefly, a little smile appearing at the corner of his lips before he shut it, and then Ralf was there with his hand outstretched.
"I'll take that."
Olivier handed it over. "I had a feeling you'd stop there."
"Would you have turned me down if I had told you?"
"No. Nor will it make a difference."
"Then why did you stop?"
"I didn't; I've already read it. All I have to do is turn the page."
"You haven't though."
Ralf's expression was becoming several degrees colder. Johnny lowered the towel, wondering what was going on.
"You still seem to think this is somehow going to change my mind."
Olivier exhaled, rubbing a hand briefly over his brow and temple. "I'm sorry. I'm just glad to see it's affecting you at all; I was beginning to think you didn't feel anyth-"
The slap rang loudly above the waves, and in its wake, the cries of the gulls above took on a mocking note.
No one moved. Olivier’s head was still turned to the side, eyes wide, red blooming in his cheek.
Then Ralf pushed the book hard into Olivier’s chest, barely giving him time to fumble his hands over it before he let go and stalked away towards the house.
Johnny started after him, but Olivier stopped him; "Johnny, wait! Let him go."
"Let him go? What the hell even was that?"
"Are you guys okay?" Mao asked.
Takao too was full of concern. "Are you fighting? You shouldn't be fighting."
Olivier sighed. "You’re sweet, all of you, but you'd best leave us to it for now." He touched his cheek gingerly, and looked to Giancarlo. “Mon coeur, would you…?”
Giancarlo nodded. “I’m on it. But Olivier, caro, that was not kind of you.”
Olivier looked down at the book in his hands. “Sometimes we must be cruel to be kind.”
Giancarlo grabbed his sandals to hurry after Ralf, but stopped when Johnny tried to go with him. Giancarlo put a hand on his shoulder and lowered his voice. "Eh, could you maybe keep an eye on Olivier for me? I don't think he's as okay as he pretends."
“What is going on?” Johnny hissed.
Giancarlo shrugged. “They clash sometimes, you know that; they're too used to getting their way. I’ll go after Ralf. Don’t worry.”
He jogged up towards the path where Ralf was rapidly disappearing, leaving Johnny with a distinct feeling that there was something they were keeping from him.
Rei had Olivier by the chin and was examining the handprint on his cheek. “You’ll be fine, but what happened? Ralf just exploded.”
Olivier took Rei’s hand and lowered it. “Don’t worry about it, mon ami. It will pass.” He looked around, sniffed, turned businesslike. “And it is time for lunch anyway. I hope you’re hungry.”
He stuffed the book into the bottom of one of the smaller bags, slung it over his shoulder, and marched off down the beach towards the bungalow. The other bladers followed more slowly, exchanging curious and concerned looks behind his back.
“Do you know what’s going on?” Rai asked Johnny.
Johnny felt ashamed that he had to shake his head.
Any meal in the Boulanger household was an event. Even when Monsieur Boulanger was not present and Olivier himself was not cooking, they wouldn’t stand for anything less than excellence, in everything from the raw ingredients to the final presentation.
Though they had already eaten a number of meals ala Olivier since they came here, there was still quite a lot of ooh-ing and aah-ing among the teens as Marcel and Gracie uncovered the trays they had brought down to the bungalow, revealing a pyramid of avocado slices and caramelized figs wrapped in paper-thin slices of salty ham, rows of skewers with grilled salmon, chicken, veal and every sort of vegetable one could imagine, and a huge bowl of Italian pasta salad with feta cheese, olives, Bocconcini, cherry tomatoes and fresh basil.
Wasting no time, the teenagers around the table set about devouring the offerings before them, but though his stomach was growling, Johnny couldn’t make himself do more than nibble on a chicken skewer. He watched the door.
Finally, a shadow fell across the entrance, but it was just Giancarlo, and he was alone. He was still in his bathing shorts and sandals, and didn’t look happy, which made Johnny all the more worried. Room was made on the bench between Steve and Olivier, and Giancarlo climbed in, all long arms and legs and bony elbows.
“Pass me everything; I’m starving,” he said, dissatisfaction thick in his voice.
“Where’s Ralf?” Johnny demanded when it became obvious that Giancarlo would not be forthcoming without some prompting.
“Up at the house.” Giancarlo didn’t look at him.
Johnny felt his irritation rising. “And? What did he say?”
"Doesn't he want lunch?" Takao asked. "Maybe we should bring him some?"
Rai swallowed a bit of veal and put the skewer down to wipe his hands on a napkin. “Can you at least tell us how serious this is? Not half an hour ago he was championing honourable combat, and then he suddenly commits unprovoked violence on a friend.”
Giancarlo sent Olivier a sideways glance. “Oh, I don’t think it was unprovoked.”
"You cannot take his side in this, surely?" Olivier demanded of his boyfriend, but he couldn’t be half as angry as Johnny was becoming.
“You know what’s going on,” he accused the two boys across the table, who were not looking at him.
The sounds of mealtime faded, a hush falling on the crowd.
“Tell me what is going on,” Johnny said slowly.
Giancarlo looked around like he would have liked an escape hatch or rope ladder to magically appear.
Johnny sneered. “Fine.” He rose and stepped over the bench. "I'll ask Ralf." He headed resolutely for the door.
“No, Johnny, leave him alone.”
"Aaagh." Giancarlo got up and came after him, getting between him and the door. "Look," he said. “You know Ralf.” His tone was gentle and coaxing. “He’s used to being alone; this constant company drains him. He sent me packing and he'll do the same to you. He just needs some time to himself.”
Johnny felt cold and humiliated, keenly aware that the eating had stopped as everyone watched the spectacle, and that they were all thinking the same thing; the Majestics were keeping something from Johnny.
Then Takao, always the soul of etiquette, spoke up with his mouth full. “It’s not right, though; if Ralf gets to shut himself away now, he’s just gonna bury his feelings again. Olivier, maybe if you go apologize, he’ll open up to you?”
There was a sting behind Johnny’s breast bone. Takao always knew what people were feeling, always said the right thing. Takao always reached Ralf, made him mellow, made him change, made him understand.
Olivier had opened his mouth to explain, but Johnny beat him to it, fists clenched, bile and rage and inadequacy pouring into his tone.
“Seriously, Kinomiya, you think because you’re the reigning champion, you get to insert yourself into any conversation like you belong there? You think you’re such a fount of fucking wisdom, but you don’t know anything about us. Keep to your place for once and shut up.”
Both Mao and Kyouju shot to their feet.
“What gives you the right to be such a jerk?” she demanded.
“Takao is just trying to help.” Kyouju’s voice was shrill with indignation.
“Leave them be.” Yuriy spoke softly. He was still eating, at a slow, steady pace, having paused only to grin at them. “Forgive me if I don't feel sorry for you, little rich kids with your problems. Crying into your oysters.” His eyes were blue like ice when he looked at Johnny. “Is this how you fight for your pride?” He turned to Olivier. "Do you make this much of a fuss over every little squabble? Ever heard that suffering hones the soul?"
“That's not fair,” Olivier whispered harshly.
Johnny thought of the long shadows in his father's office. Father's back bending as he reached for the bamboo stick. "I am just glad we caught you in time. You will not see Holger again. I will only teach you this lesson once, boy, so remember it well; what the two of you tried to do is sinful, disgusting, and wrong. Repeat it back to me."
Johnny had learned a different lesson that day. That his father's love was conditional, and that he would someday have to live without it.
But Yuriy didn't know. No one knew. Because suffering honed, if not your soul, then at least your ability to lie.
"Hey," Giancarlo held up his hands. "That's enough. There's no need for all this."
"Okay, but you're beginning to worry us now," Rei spoke up. "At least tell us Ralf is okay."
"He's okay," Giancarlo said just as Olivier said "He's not okay."
"Great. Is he sick? Is he dying?"
"How about we all go see him?" Takao asked, rising, and then half the table was getting up and Giancarlo was frantically waving his arms at them.
"No, no, sit down, he's not dying. I SAID SIT DOWN, HE'S JUST GETTING-" It had gone quiet. "-married." Giancarlo cleared his throat, lowering his voice again. "He's getting married."
The ground disappeared beneath Johnny's feet and then he was in freefall.
He meant to say "What?", but no sound came out of his mouth, and Giancarlo had his back to him now, so he didn't see it.
"Married?" Michael echoed incredulously. "He's nineteen."
"He turned twenty in March," Giancarlo said lamely.
Olivier was massaging his temples. "We were not supposed to tell anyone, Giancarlo."
"I know," even more lamely. "I panicked."
"Who's he marrying?" Max wondered. "I didn't know he had friends outside us." He looked at Mao and Emily, as if it was more likely to be one of them than an outsider.
Emily rolled her eyes, rising from where she sat at the closest end of the bench. It was Johnny she was focused on. "Hey. You alright? You don't look so good."
He didn't feel so good; nauseous and trembling hard, pressure mounting in his ears.
Married. It repeated over and over inside him. Ralf had someone. Ralf was in love with someone. Ralf was going to be with someone, be someone's husband.
No, no, no!
"I'm sure he meant to tell you too," Emily said, leaning in. Startled, he met her eyes, quick and alert and kind.
Giancarlo came back and patted him awkwardly on the shoulder. "Actually, he wasn't going to tell anyone yet; Olivier and I found out by accident, and we were kind of sworn to secrecy. I'm sorry."
"Come sit down," Olivier ordered. "Eat something. You've had too much sun and not enough sustenance."
Humiliation pounded high in Johnny's throat. Ralf was in love with someone else. What else had Johnny expected? What kind of ridiculous dreams had he secretly been nourishing?
"Come on. Take my seat." Emily reached for him, and it was too much; everyone was watching, he was cornered, the sun burning his back, their eyes burning his face. He needed air.
He showed Emily his teeth, backing away. “I don’t need sympathy from someone who lets computers dictate how she blades. You and your team are glorified launchers!”
“Johnny!” Olivier stood. "That's enough!"
"Come on, Johnny," Eddie said. "Why are you even mad? So Ralf's found someone to love. Sounds like a cause to celebrate to me."
There was a howl clawing its way up his throat, and in a moment of pure self-preservation he turned tail and fled, out the door and down the beach, only managing to keep his pace to an angry walk because he couldn't make his trembling legs run.
He heard his name called, but didn’t turn or stop.
Tears pressed hard behind his eyes. The heat of the sun was like a weight pressing him down.
He stumbled up the beach, past the parasols, and up the path towards the house, only slowing as he reached the top and saw the house resting there under the blue sky. Ralf was inside.
Ralf was getting married.
Ralf would soon be someone’s partner, companion, husband.
… And that someone would be his wife. Someone would move into the castle, and fill it with light and life and laughter and ... children.
Johnny gasped around the ache in his throat, curled his fingers as needles of sorrow stabbed through them. Forced the tears back.
Ralf would be happy and complete.
And where would Johnny be?
A sound from the beach made him startle and turn, but it was only a couple of seagulls wheeling down to peck at their bags, looking for food. It woke him up, though; he couldn’t just stand here. He made himself walk towards the house. He needed clothes, needed his things; couldn’t leave like this.
He chose the balcony door again, peeked inside and saw empty rooms, snuck through the house and met no one. He was half-way up the stairs when he heard the scramble of claws on hardwood flooring, and Camille came bounding around the corner, skidding several metres before barking excitedly and leaping up the stairs to nearly bowl him over.
Marcel, grey-haired before his time, came after a moment later, breathing hard. “Chien stupide! Oh! Monsieur Johnny. Pardon. I’ll take her.”
“Actually …” An idea had struck. He couldn’t leave; it would make everyone wonder. If they found out his secret, he'd die of shame. But he needed to be alone now, where no well-meaning friend could come knocking. “I can take her for a walk.”
“There’s no need, monsieur; Genvie took her out less than an hour ago. You are our guest, and here to relax …” He must have seen Johnny’s disappointment, because he quickly amended, “But you know Camille; she would spend all day exploring the grounds if she could. She would love to go for a walk with you.”
“Excellent. If anyone asks, we don’t know when we’ll be back.”
“I’ll be right down.”
He managed to get to his room without meeting anyone else, heart pounding hard all the way, like he was a trespasser. He closed the door as silently as he could, in case Ralf was in his own room, and eased the drawers open to get his khaki shorts and a green tank top.
There was sand in his hair and on his feet, but he didn’t care, didn’t even stop to dry off his damp skin, just shucked his trunks and pulled on the shorts and top. He grabbed his sneakers out of the closet and shoved his feet into them, and lastly, before he left, he got his blade from behind his pillow and slipped it into his pocket.
A minute later he was running with Camille along the cliff's edge, away from the beach, the house, his friends, Ralf, and the shattered world.
They hit the tree line and plunged into the woods. Once they were well away, he let her off the leash. She was off like a greyhound after a stuffed bunny, barking so Johnny half expected the trees to come down around them, but within moments she was back, circling his legs, bouncing and wagging her tail, and when she went off again, he followed, first walking and then running.
The woods were made up of sparse exotic pines, not as dense as the overgrown trees of his own highland summer home, but the sun still did not feel as intense in here. Soon Camille was gone, and Johnny slowed to a walk. The woods split off into a belt that curved around the Boulanger grounds. Johnny walked south for a while before allowing the natural paths to take him east and northeast. Every now and then he mustered his voice and called for Camille, keeping her close.
He listened to the wind in the trees and the rustle of dry pine needles under his feet, breathed deeply of the faint salt and sharp sap in the air, and felt the sun and the shade warm and cool him in turns. But every moment he was haunted by the spectre of a woman he knew nothing about, who had risen like a veil between him and his best friend.
He walked until he found himself in the clearing where Olivier had built his outdoor beydish.
The dish was grey, and rested in a black stone foundation, with four steps up to the lip on each side. The dish itself had a matte finish, but the stone was smooth and polished, and the light made its pink and white veins shine. It looked alien in this landscape.
Johnny sat down on the dais and pulled his blade from his pocket. The weight and shape of it should have been reassuring. The cicadas sang here, intensifying the heat and the dizziness in his head. Salamalyon was silent.
They had come here on the first day and bladed until the sun had gone down. Seventeen of the world’s best bladers, cheering and yelling encouragement and challenges, their sacred beasts roaring at the sky.
Johnny had lost to Takao. He’d been doing fine, Sala was fast and ferocious, spitting fire, clashing head on with Seiryuu and holding his own. Takao had been laughing.
It had been fun. He had been proud.
Then Olivier had said something aside to Ralf, and Ralf had brushed him off brusquely, and when Olivier tried again, Ralf had gotten angry, and Johnny had lost track of the battle in his concern.
“I agreed to your terms, now heed mine; do not bring this up with me again until the time is out!”
What Ralf had meant, Johnny didn’t know. He had thought only of how hurt Ralf sounded, how this was different from the usual way he and Olivier sometimes argued, and so Johnny had turned to see what was wrong, and Salamalyon, so closely bonded with him, had turned too, and then cried out in alarm as Seiryuu and Dragoon had hit them hard from behind, sending Johnny’s blade shooting out of the dish and into the bushes.
The cicadas screamed around him.
He felt small as he sat there, curled around his own pain. Like an animal in the underbrush, hiding from a world too large for it. Out there, bigger, more wonderful, fearless animals were living in the sun, sharing their own desire and finding themselves desired in turn. Johnny was curled up under the leaves, waiting for a spring that seemed like it would never reach him. For some reason he had thought his winged, beaked best friend would stay down there with him forever.
How could he have imagined that anyone would want him, let alone that Ralf might? Ralf could have anyone. Johnny had thought himself free of such delusions, but now he knew that some small part of him had hoped … thought that maybe …
God, he was so stupid.
In the end, anyone who gave him a chance would quickly discover how petty and ordinary he was. Always second best.
Camille came running, and after sniffing around for a while, she climbed the steps on her short legs and fell down close by his side, panting hard.
Her tail thumped happily against the stone, her paws hanging daintily over the edge of the first step.
"Do you wanna know,” he began, “how I first figured out that I was in love with him?" He smiled. "It's pretty dumb."
Camille blinked up at him with her dark, kind eyes.
"It was after he gave me the rematch. Of course, you don't know what that means. I'd wanted one for ages, you see, but he had this rule, and until Takao ..." He had to swallow around the lump in his throat. "Ralf wouldn't make an exception for me, so I waited, and I tried other games, anything that I could challenge him to. He always won, but I thought, if I just keep trying, eventually he'll blade with me again, and then I can prove that I'm ..." He looked up, blinked. "We played everything ... except Beyblade. Then our lord and saviour Kinomiya Takao came along … and Ralf made an exception. I couldn't understand why. Why was Takao worthy when I wasn’t?” He shook his head. “I still don’t know … But afterwards, once the spell was broken ... I asked again. And Ralf said yes. And we battled. And he won."
Camille whined and snuffled at his thigh. Johnny stroked her head.
"I felt so strange afterwards; I didn't know if I was angry, or okay, or something else. I'd failed, but I felt ..."
He shook his head.
"I was staying over. Ralf doesn’t sleep well, so he tends to wander the castle at night, and that night I couldn't sleep either, so I went to find him." He closed his eyes and saw before him the long hallway, the lounge, and the open glass doors with the white curtains. "He was standing on a balcony looking out into the dark. He's dramatic like that. He was leaning on the balustrade, all alone in his pyjamas in the cold and I realised ..." He had to bite his lower lip hard for a moment before he could continue. "I realised I didn't want to win, because then ... why would he let me stay? So I felt happy because he let me stay."
The stone dais glittered in the sun so Johnny couldn't see.
"I knew then that what I had felt after the match was happiness. Not because I lost, but because he was right there, across the dish from me. I hate losing, but ... I love being with him."
The sea began to well up in his eyes, but he shook his head, held it back.
"... He doesn't love me. He'll never love me."
Why would anyone?
Needles of sorrow stung in his fingertips.
"That's okay. It's okay. I got five years with him. I'll remember them."